Japan from the inside out

Lame and shameless

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 16, 2010

Any half-informed piece of disinformation seems to suffice where Japan is concerned.
– Jenny Holt

THAT’S ODD, I thought. I hadn’t read anything about this at all.

I was looking at a story from the BBC website that claimed Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio was in serious trouble with the Japanese public because he wore a goofy shirt to a barbecue for ordinary voters last month at his official residence.

Then I ran across another article on the same topic from the China Post.

Why haven’t I heard about this before, I asked myself. I subscribe to a Japanese daily newspaper, and nothing about Mr. Hatoyama’s shirt appeared there. I have an RSS feed that receives daily downloads from 17 more Japanese newspapers, four of them published nationwide. My feed also receives daily posts from 11 Japanese-language blogging sites, one of them a major blog aggregator. All of the aggregated sites are those of politicians, journalists, or commentators.


My wife is the television monitor in the family. I asked her if she had seen anything.

“There was something about a pink shirt a while ago, but it wasn’t a big deal.”

You mean you haven’t seen anything about the five-colored, checkered shirt he wore to the barbecue?

“No. Why?”

Because I just read a blog entry at the Atlantic magazine, which said it was “a fashion misstep (that) may be contributing to the derailing of (his government).” They said it was “so hideous it has drawn an international backlash.” The headline called it an “international furor”.

She briefly regarded me with a puzzled expression, but then shook her head. “What do you expect from the international media? Accurate reporting about Japan?”


I found the Atlantic blog post after curiosity prompted me to insert the search terms “Hatoyama” and “shirt” in Google News.

Google threw up 336 hits. The Atlantic story was at the top of the heap.

It quoted CNN’s Kyung Lah talking about an article written by “critic” Don Konishi for a national magazine, in which Mr. Konishi claimed the prime minister was out of touch.

The Atlantic also reported that the French news agency AFP collected and translated further commentary by Mr. Konishi, who suggested that the prime minister’s political party “is over with this shirt”. Mr. Konishi is a fashion designer by trade.

They quote the Daily Caller’s S.E. Cupp:

It’s like something Walker, Texas Ranger would have worn to a gay bar in 1994.

They add further commentary by someone identified as Gawker’s Jeff Neumann, who wrote:

Japan’s embattled Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama…may have done himself in by wearing a multi-colored plaid shirt that has pissed off the entire country. … Hatoyama recently hosted a cookout for everyday voters…in an effort to reach out to some of the people who hate him. But when he showed up wearing this shirt, people went crazy.


Let’s make this simple and direct, shall we?

Most people in Japan wish that Mr. Hatoyama were no longer their prime minister. But none of them really hate him, except perhaps a few Okinawans who think he double-crossed them over his intentions for the Futenma airbase. None of them went crazy when he wore this shirt. He did not piss off the entire country. In fact, most Japanese don’t even know that he wore this shirt. Those that would like to see him gone from office feel that way because of his performance in office, not because of his haberdashery.

Let’s continue to keep it simple and direct.

Jeff Neumann knows as much about what the people of Japan think as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth knows about marijuana cultivation in Humboldt County, California.

Gawker is a site that seems to be half show business gossip, half political snark, and zero Japanese cultural or political news.

S.E. Cupp may know what guys wore to Texas gay bars in 1994, but she’s in a dark closet when it comes to Japan.

If the AFP spent more than 20 minutes rounding up and translating anything Don Konishi said about this shirt in print, they need to hire competent researchers.

But you don’t have to take my word. Empirical methods can be used to examine the question.

The article Don Konishi wrote was for the Shukan Asahi, one Japan’s six major news weeklies. It appeared in their 23 April edition. The Atlantic blog post reproduces part of the page.

Recall that Google News had 336 hits about this international backlash that could bring down the Hatoyama government. Naturally, I switched over to Google News Japan, and input the search terms “Hatoyama” and “shirt” in Japanese.

It got three hits.


The first two were from sports dailies. The subject of every article was not that Mr. Hatoyama’s admittedly unusual shirt had caused revulsion throughout the archipelago. Rather, the articles focused on what the overseas media was saying. The reason for the overseas focus? Because the only person talking about it in Japan is Don Konishi, shown demonstrating his fashion sense in the photo at right.

The third hit was from a major Japanese news outlet. That was the daily Asahi, published by the same people who publish the Shukan Asahi.

Links in Japan don’t last long, so I usually don’t provide the ones in Japanese, but I’ll make an exception in this case. Here’s the daily Asahi article, and here’s the first sentence translated into English:

Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s taste in personal clothing has been increasingly criticized by the Western media.

Does the Asahi talk about the Japanese reaction? No, how could they? There is none, other than that of Don Konishi. They talk instead about the people CNN interviewed. None of them are Japanese.

Here’s the English translation of the end of the Asahi article:

Does the prime minister’s personal clothing look all that bad in the West? The Asahi Shimbun interviewed Mark-Evan Blackman, chairman of the menswear design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. He said, “That five-colored shirt really is pretty bad. But Prime Minister Hatoyama looks rather svelte, and he could look elegant depending on the way he dresses. I would recommend that he wear either a bright cashmere sweater or a silk sweater with some tasteful jeans.”

Here’s what we have. Don Konishi is roughly the Japanese equivalent of Mr. Blackwell, who achieved notoriety in the United States for his annual Ten Worst Dressed Women of the Year List. The Shukan Asahi published his cattiness as amusing space filler and everyone who read it promptly forgot about it.

Everyone that is, except the know-nothings of Western journalism, who have deluded themselves into thinking that the shirt has “pissed off the entire country” and caused an international furor.

Long-time friends of this site know exactly what’s happening, however—anti-Nipponism. As I wrote in a post with that title: “These are not honest mistakes. This is not sloppy research. Someone, somewhere, has made a conscious decision to depict the Japanese as negatively as possible, however possible, whenever possible. These depictions of Japan are the rule rather than the exception.”

These people enjoy thinking of Japan as the Goofball Kingdom of East Asia. It’s not as if any of them have ever bothered to file a story providing any real insight for the reasons Mr. Hatoyama is seen as a failed prime minister–or any story providing real insight into Japan, for that matter.

Are they incapable of such stories, or are they uninterested in such stories? Most likely it’s a combination of both. People do tend to take the lazy way out, after all, and the Japanese-are-so-weird game is a marvelous diversion. How much easier it is to display junior high spitball artistry instead of expending the effort on research or study. Why should the too-cool-for-school crowd waste their time on analysis when they fall for the line that a dorky shirt threatens the political position of the prime minister of Dork Nation?

Who do they think they’re kidding? More to the point, just what is their problem? Ms. Holt, quoted at the top of this post, has a theory of her own that she offered to The Guardian:

I have lived in Japan for nine years, I have a Japanese husband and son, and I can honestly say that the most striking thing about people here is how downright normal they are….This is modern normality, and if foreigners who came here actually bothered to learn the language and find out what ordinary Japanese people think they would appreciate that….The stereotyping also speaks volumes about the western psyche. It suggests that westerners resent and fear successful non-white cultures and that they cope by denigrating and dehumanising them. What Britain chooses to see in Japan says more about its own insecurities than about the Japanese…

You think she’s exaggerating? The same Atlantic post took the opportunity presented by Mr. Hatoyama’s non-problem with the shirt to cite a brief report from Best Week Ever’s Sarah Walker titled, This Is Far From Japan’s Craziest Clothing. She mentions the “rice bra,” which is wearable and filled with soil and rice seeds. Walker takes a publicity stunt as something real, failing to listen as her inner Foghorn Leghorn protests, “It’s a joke, son. I said, it’s a joke!”

But she doesn’t want to get the joke. She wants to believe the Japan of her imagination actually exists.

Then again, this post was published in The Atlantic, which also prints the blog posts of Andrew Sullivan. His link to reality is so tenuous, he has been suggesting—for almost two years–that the fifth child of Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP candidate for Vice-President in the U.S., was actually her eldest daughter’s baby, despite the physical impossibility of those circumstances.

Perhaps we should just consider the source.

Regardless of the motives or the character deficiencies of those who indulge themselves with these fables, one thing is certain:

If what you know about Japan is derived from the English-language mass media, then everything you know about Japan is wrong.

UPDATE: More front than Blackpool

I sent a link to this piece to Neumann by e-mail, and he replied twice. Here’s the first:

Ha! I love blogs by expats that “explain” other countries. They “get it”!

Neumann’s visibility, such as it is, derives from the fact that he quit his job as a T-shirt vendor in a baseball stadium, went to Iraq, and wrote a book about it.

That’s right. He was an expat who wrote a book to “explain” another country. He “gets it”. He parlayed that into a gig at an Internet gossip site.

He sent me another one a few minutes later:

I’m guessing you’re a white guy English teacher who creeps around Roppongi trying desperately to get laid.

He didn’t have to guess who I was. He could have read About at the top of the page to find out.

Nah, that would be research. Too much like real work.

For more on this phenomenon, try The Bogus and The Bona Fide, #1 and #2. For more on life in No-Shinkansen Sticksville, as a reader calls it, try this.

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27 Responses to “Lame and shameless”

  1. Andrew in Ezo said

    Thanks for bringing up Ms.Holts comments again. Her words summarize my observations and feelings as a 16 year resident of Japan exactly. Unfortunately, most in the Anglosphere, and a good number of foreign residents in Japan, don’t want to hear it. Sometimes the truth hurts.

  2. […] Media blow it on Japan, again. Though I thought the Texas gay-bar line was at least mildly […]

  3. I think Neumann is related to this guy:

    or maybe to this guy:

    Either way, he is

  4. Hey, what’s wrong with getting laid?
    You won’t get an argument from me, Paul!

    – A.

  5. ThomasD said

    You are correct that Japan deserves greater respect and stature internationally. Viewed from a position of knowledge Japan’s treatment in the media is not so different from any other esoteric subject. The more you know about any given topic the more you see that the media cares little for actually getting the details right.

    However, given Japan’s history maybe some of the esoteric nature and/or perceived weirdness is in fact consciously maintained, perhaps a form of cultural defense mechanism?
    TD: Thanks for the note.

    I don’t think it’s conscious. I think most people just do what comes naturally. Of course they realize that people in other parts of the world think they’re esoteric, but other than a few who consciously play to that (as in any country), most people are being the Japanese version of normal, as Jenny Holt points out.

    Then again, others might disagree.

    – A.

  6. Bridget said

    Hmmm, who gives a $hit what type of shirt he wore? I come to a different conclusion than you in that the authors are dissing the American western style of clothing. It seems the author (not the blog author) is of a more leftist mind and therefore weaves his bias into an obviously ignorant (based on your analysis, which I’m inclined to believe) ignorant post. In any case, I revert back to the first question.

    Also, I am a knitter and have found the Japanese design books for knitting (any crafts, actually) to be exquisite – they are different from the European styles (I currently live in Europe) and yet have a unique quality unto themselves. I have two Japanese knitting machines – they are designed to place the most amount of utility into the smallest space – which is a constraint that I believe is ingrained in the Japanese mind as they mostly live on an island with few natural resources and a large population in a small geographical space. Constraints make for interesting design.
    Bridget: Thanks for your note and your description of Japanese knitting. Learn something new every day–truly!

    – A.

  7. Tblakely said

    Your railing about racist westerners stereotyping Japanese is ironic given the Japanese penchant for stereotyping foreigners. I am very appreciative of Japanese culture and their accomplishments but am fully aware of their issues with racism and xenophobia. From what I’ve seen there are many Japanese who are aware of their failings but tend to ignore it and prefer to play the ‘victim’ card.
    TB: Thanks for the note.

    I take your point, but I don’t think Japan is as xenophobic as others claim. See this, for example.

    There’s also the old “Compared to what?” rejoinder.

    I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1977 to 1984. At that time, there was a branch of the KKK in Union City. Hop in the car, and 15 minutes later you’re in downtown Oakland, home of the Black Panthers. Another 15 or 20 minutes later, and you’re in San Francisco’s Castro district.

    How can one say “America is…” or “Japan is…” when one can’t even say “The Bay Area is…”?

    – A.

  8. […] Instapundit, a link to great blog about Japan, Ampontan.  Today’s post is called Lame and Shameless, about ridiculous Western reporting on Japan.  I am reminded of Andrea Martins, our representative […]

  9. gs said

    Japan is an advanced society that is not PC, not multicultural, and does not “celebrate diversity”.

    No wonder the progressive Western media dislike them.

  10. Author said

    By peddling “anti-nipponism” conspiracy theories you descend below the objects of your critique. Have you ever heard what BBC, NYT, et al say about Russia?
    Thanks, A:

    “Peddling”? No, I propose.

    Conspiracy theory? Please read the Anti-Nipponism post from start to finish, and then offer your explanation. It’s no more a conspiracy than what the mass media does with other topics.

    As for the BBC, the NYT, et al., on Russia–do they make stuff up, deliberately butcher quotes, don’t bother to take the time to do proper research, slant stories to fit their narrative? I wouldn’t be surprised.

    Happens with their Japan stories all the time.

    – A.

  11. Tblakely said

    “I take your point, but I don’t think Japan is as xenophobic as others claim. See this, for example.”

    Japan has made great strides in that area given her past. But compared with other countries…. they still have issues.

    “There’s also the old “Compared to what?” rejoinder.”

    If Japanese are going to complain about being victims of racism, they’d better be pretty free of it themselves or people are going to consider them hypocrites. Japan has a pretty dark past in that area that for the most part they want to ignore.

    If America complained about being stereotyped as being fat, lazy and racist in Japan, would you be sympathetic to the charge? Or would you snort, in contempt?
    TB: Thanks again.

    As for making great strides, you could say exactly the same thing about the United States. Or Great Britain. Or just about anyone.

    The late jazz drummer Philly Joe Jones said the only country he felt perfectly comfortable in was Cuba.

    Compared to other countries? What other countries? What is your basis for comparison? As I say, Compared to what?

    I lived as an adult in the American NE corridor, the South, the Midwest, and the Bay Area. I’ve lived as an adult in a town of 180,000 in Japan a 90-minute plane ride from Tokyo for more than 26 years, and I was fluent when I got here.

    Based on my direct observation, the issues are no worse here than there.

    “Japan” ignores its past? I’m sorry, but the Japanese do not ignore their past. They talk about their past constantly. There is more wide-ranging study of the Nanjing Massacre in Japan, believe it or not, than in China or the U.S. The only reason people aren’t aware of it is that they don’t publish it in English. We can walk into most any bookstore in the country, and within five minutes I can put into your hands books by Japanese honestly examining the “dark” aspects of their past on any subject you care to mention.

    Nowhere in any of these posts, BTW, do I bring up “Japan” complaining of racism, so I don’t know why you’re talking about it. I’m talking about a blatant anti-Japanese bias/willful ignorance in the English-language media. And it ain’t just me who thinks that way.

    As for “Japan” doing something, well, there are 127 million people here. That’s why I don’t do well with discussions about “America” complaining about this, or “Japan” complaining about that.

    – A.

  12. PacRim Jim said

    The world must be in good shape for people to waste time on this bit of fluff.

  13. Mandel said

    All right, let’s cut the crap here and get to the real important issue!!

    Where can I buy that shirt???? I LOVE it…..

  14. Llarry said

    I’m guessing you’re a white guy English teacher who creeps around Roppongi trying desperately to get laid.

    This guy obviously knows nothing at all about Japan if he thinks any white-guy English teacher has to “try desperately” to get laid there. Oh, the stories I could tell if I weren’t a gentleman! Flaming youth.

    The amazing thing about Japan was the number of gorgeous female students who had studied abroad and who spoke English with British accents, Australian accents, New Foundland accents, Tennessean accents–you name it.

    Naomi had a Scottish burr. “Dih ye na like ma way o’ speakin’?” she asked me when my jaw hit the table.

    There’s really nothing like having a beautiful young Japanese woman call you “lad.”

  15. Tblakely said

    So are most media people lazy, ignorant nits who like to sensationalize to grab readers/viewers or are most of them promoting rampant “anti-nipponism?” I’d wager most of them are the former with few of the latter.

    Frankly, from what I’ve seen over the years is that these days few westerners think about the Japanese much less deliberately malign them. The only people I know of who are rampantly “anti-nippon” are a small number of WWII vets who fought in the Pacific and some hard-core union members. The vast majority rarely think about the Japanese at all.

  16. Mr. Roboto said

    It does not help being perceived as normal people when the Japanese are being married by robots!

  17. Chris W said

    I wouldn’t disagree with you about the generalities of this particular piece, but…

    Generally speaking the Japanese are pretty eccentric. I like this about them. Incidentally, I know Japanese culture well – married into it 15 years, numerous close Japanese friends, many visits, and currently at the end of a 3-year stay.

    And most of the long-term expats I’ve met in Japan are kind of weird. Does living in Japan do this to them or are they drawn to Japan because of a pre-existing weirdness? (I think the latter). Maybe you don’t notice Japanese eccentricity because you’re just crazier than them! (I mean that flippantly, please don’t take offense).

    As for the ‘anti-Nippon’ charge. I think a simpler explanation is American ignorance. Americans are the most ignorant people in all the Universe! Even the most educated. If it doesn’t concern themselves, American geography, habits, culture, history, etc, Americans (with very few exceptions) are unbelievably and unforgivably ignorant. Even when Americans know a little of the rest of the world, it’s only respect to how it affects them or other Americans. If there isn’t or wasn’t an American anywhere around – the world and all its history cease to exist!

    …which is a shame because there are a lot of Americans I like.

  18. […] Lame and shameless Any half-informed piece of disinformation seems to suffice where Japan is concerned. – Jenny Holt THAT’S ODD, I […] […]

  19. mac said

    Llarry ….

    can you post Naomi’s home page please!

    Thank you universe … “Mac“.

    Having said that … I do think they should have a retired BBC announcer employed by immigration inspecting and validity all so-called “English language” assistants. The word “teacher” comes hard to write in such context.

    The worst con I got told was ‘A Very Large and Well Known Language School’ telling Nigerian employees to tell their naive paying Japanese students that they were American. What speaking Lagos does for one’s professional potential, I have no idea … unless one wants to go into advance fee fraud for a living.

    *** Gs … news from ‘No Shinkansen Sticksville’ again … go f* yourself and if you are over here f* off fast will you?

    I just got back from local festival in what used to be the samurai’s grounds of one of the more beautiful, rambling castles in Japan. Putting aside the wide range of what is called ‘world food’ in the West (everything except the usual commercial Japanese stuff) and eclectic stalls selling and teaching everything from Al Gore and 9/11 conspiracy books to how cut your own hashi from bamboo, my lasting impression is sitting there under a clear sky watching with amazing a rock bassist and guitarist playing along with a sitar, a woman chanting and playing a vina, another on a digeridoo, to which another guy was overtoning some Mongolia throat song in to a backdrop of the beautifully ornate castle rising high on the wooden mount behind them.

    One of those “Perfect Day” days one could not ask for more of.

    And if you think that is something … wait until you see what is coming to a neighboring rice field festival … only you are not going to know about because I do not want you there spoiling it, like the usual, token, painfully self-conscious gloating gaijin asshole.

    All that I will say is that it is going to involve more body paint than clothing and is going to be as uniquely un-Japanese Japanese as one could imagine.

    “Progressive” … the shit out of my arse you idiot.

  20. James A said

    There are a hell of a lot more important things to talk about Hatoyama’s administration rather than just a tacky shirt he wore to a BBQ. No wonder mainstream publications like Newsweek are losing money and getting sold off. They keep mistaking the political section for the fashion section!

  21. Aceface said

    “Generally speaking the Japanese are pretty eccentric. I like this about them. Incidentally, I know Japanese culture well – married into it 15 years, numerous close Japanese friends, many visits, and currently at the end of a 3-year stay.”

    Does your wife draw manga? If not,she should.
    Because the existence of the likes of you are badly needed in the world of Japanese entertainment,which are pretty eccentric in many aspects.

  22. submandave said

    Mr. Roboto, should the choice of some in the US to be married by Elvis be taken as indicative of the entire population? You well may have been joking, but it was quite illustrative to the point at hand.

    Bottom line, we all love those wierd quirky human stories. When those stories involve Americans, it is easy because of our proximity and personal knowledge of the culture to instictively dismiss them as oddities. However, when a story about something like used-panty vending machines comes up in the context of an unfamiliar culture whose image carries with it an expectation of the exotic, it becomes much easier for those with only passing familiarity to accept it as part of the norm. I think it is this simple mechanism of human nature and laziness more than a dedicated and focused anti-Japan bias that yields such shoddy reporting.

    While nowhere near your CV, I think I have a greater familiarity and understanding of Japan and its culture than most Americans, and say without reservation that some aspects can be pretty darn peculiar. Then again, one could honestly say that about anyplace worth living.
    SD: Hear hear! Paragraphs 1 and 2 are superb, and I’m working on a followup to MR myself that will be up tomorrow. The only difference is that I do think there is intent to belittle for entertainment purposes.

    – A.

  23. Mr Roboto said

    submandave – yes, i was kidding, but it is hilarious to me that you bring up that example, because i have a close friend who moved here from japan, and when she got married she was married in Vegas by an Elvis impersonator. And no, I am totally not making that up! She loves doing all the kitschy stuff over here that she grew up hearing about “Those weird Americans” doing.

    I don’t think it is anything sinister that people report these stories about foreign cultures, it’s common sense: Who is going to waste time out of their day reading/watching a story about “[Fill in foreign country] people are all boring and normal, just like us”? Dog bites man isn’t news – Man bites dog is news.

  24. Chris W said

    Haha, “the Japanese aren’t weird, they’re no more weird than Americans.”

    Where do I begin…

    I guess, at least the Japanese are weird in a cute, playful way, and not a scary, disturbed way like the USA, but, yeah, both countries are pretty weird. Ask someone from a normal society if you’re not sure. 🙂

  25. TKYCraig said

    Another ‘wacky Japanese’ story in the Western media… Bill, you should create a link at the top of your website to that collection. Could be a valuable resource.

    PS… the real problem with that ‘fashion faux-pas’ was having the shirt tucked-in and the pants so high!
    TKYC: Now that’s an interesting idea.

    I can’t blame Mr. Hatoyama for tucking his shirt in. He’s not that much older than me, and I always tuck my shirt in too.

    Here’s the best part: Women like men who don’t look sloppy.

    – A.

  26. Quin said

    As for the ‘anti-Nippon’ charge. I think a simpler explanation is American ignorance. Americans are the most ignorant people in all the Universe! Even the most educated. If it doesn’t concern themselves, American geography, habits, culture, history, etc, Americans (with very few exceptions) are unbelievably and unforgivably ignorant. Even when Americans know a little of the rest of the world, it’s only respect to how it affects them or other Americans. If there isn’t or wasn’t an American anywhere around – the world and all its history cease to exist!

    …which is a shame because there are a lot of Americans I like.
    I love how you went and grouped all Americans together. I wasn’t aware that you talked to over 200 million people and found out whether or not they are aware of things outside their country.

    Anyway, I think both countries have their bad moments when it comes to accurate reporting on each other.

  27. Aceface said

    5 Twisted Business Ideas (That Could Only Have Come From Japan)

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